I was walking my dog along the beach boardwalk before my husband came home, my usual way to destress from a long day of work. From the corner of my eye I saw him – the stalker – hiding behind a tree. Again. He “coincidentally” bumped into me on my way back to the car. With my heart racing and fearing for my safety, I corralled my dog into the car and sped home. I was not safe there either, since the stalker knew where I lived, and on several occasions had waited outside my house. This was not an isolated incident. In the past two years, a different man violently charged at me, and a third man threatened to ruin my career if I did not reciprocate his feelings of love.
As a Carlsbad City Council member and policy analyst for a nonprofit focused on domestic violence and sexual assault, I know how to obtain restraining orders and launch investigations against offenders. Even for people like me with resources and a comprehensive understanding of these systems, the process is long, complicated and arduous. Imagining what it must be like for those without my privilege, experience and connections is horrifying.
In the midst of the coronavirus and widespread stay-at-home orders, another hidden pandemic is boiling over. Research shows public crises are associated with significant increases in domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, elder abuse, child abuse and stalking. In fact, this year between March 28 and April 17, murder-suicides attributed to domestic violence more than doubled in the United States.
Victims of abuse with unstable financial and housing situations are more vulnerable due to diminishing resources and budgetary constraints amid COVID-19. Social services and personnel who help survivors of abuse transition to safe locations have been reduced. Public safety personnel are responding to calls for help, but current measures come with difficulties. Staying at home means victims are often trapped with their abuser. Already a daunting challenge, many victims are currently unable or severely delayed in extending restraining orders. Many legal actions require the victim to be physically present in court, and directly interacting with her or his perpetrator.
We need to act now. If we do not, the surge in domestic violence and murders related to abuse will rise daily. Immediate policy changes can reduce barriers in the legal system for victims and survivors, including electronic temporary restraining orders, video conferencing with judges and e-signing legal paperwork.
Additionally, long-term systemic changes in the political arena must occur. My experiences as a Council member shed light on the fact that some elected leaders and candidates are not the feminists they publicly portray themselves to be. These individuals unapologetically, and at times intentionally, worked with perpetrators for political gain – including my stalker. They knew of and were witnesses to the atrocious behavior. I will not be silent for “politics’ sake.” We must lead by example. Regardless of public perception or party affiliation, elected officials must genuinely support those that come forward with their story. We have to reject duplicitous behavior, while fostering honesty and integrity.
After sharing my experiences with numerous colleagues, they urged me to remain silent, firmly believing everything I experienced as a young woman in office is “part of politics” and that “it is just the way it is.” To create a cultural shift, we need more individuals willing to change the political norm, and to speak their minds when they see that something is clearly wrong. We need more representatives who stay true to their values, and protect the most vulnerable in our society. This current reality is wicked hypocrisy.
Priya Bhat-Patel is a Council member in the city of Carlsbad. She is also a policy analyst and manager for the California Family Justice Center Network (Alliance for HOPE International).